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Saving Starlings: Part 2

Thursday, May 28, 2015

  • We're standing in a parking lot at the Applebee's in Marietta, Ohio, dithering, on a hot Saturday in May. 

    Two more baby starlings lay sprawled on the black mulch, under a shrub. Oh man. Cynthia's baby, which she'd stayed up all night to check on, was still at her house, about 10 minutes away. That makes three that had fallen from a single nest. At 8 days, the babies were old enough to be active and crawl around a bit, and had found their way to a gap and fallen through.

    What a mess. She told me that two little girls had seen these on the ground and been very concerned about them, and moved them under a bush. Well, sure. They're the definition of vulnerability. This explained the food-bearing starlings, sitting on the Dumpster fence, waiting for the coast to clear so they could feed their fallen children. I noted through binoculars that they were hauling cutworms. Good starlings. Not feeding your babies Freedom Fries. Hey, me neither.

    It was obvious to me and Cynthia that, between the Applebee's customers constantly walking by on dayshift,  taking pity on them and picking them up and (most importantly) keeping nervous parents away from them, and the rats and mice on night shift, these 8-9 day old babies weren't going to make it on the ground. Starlings stay in the nest a very long time--until about Day 24. They leave the nest flying strongly and are completely on their own only a few days later.  One of the great amazements and mysteries of starling nest life that I'm exploring in my upcoming book, Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest. 

    After speaking with Cynthia for a bit, we both withdrew to see if the parents were still attending a nest, and if so, where that might be. I could hear the low churr of a single baby starling from high up in the awning over the side windows facing the parking lot. 

    Sure enough, patient waiting was rewarded with the sight of a parent entering a slit on the metal awning, and the sound of a baby being stuffed with food.

    There's a house sparrow perched up where the nest zone is, and it also has a nest stuffed in the narrow triangle of space. The starling nest is farther down the awning, at the other end of the metal brace on which  the sparrow's perched. The starlings were entering that slit and tending a precarious nest within.

    It was far too high to reach, even with a stepladder. 
    We went inside to ask the manager permission to intervene, and ask if he had a cardboard box we could use.
    He returned after some time with a small three-sided box, and the warning that, for liability reasons, we would not be permitted to use a ladder around this establishment. Oh. Hmm. Crap.

    Being a Meyers Briggs ISTP (The Mechanic), my brain began churning around how to solve this problem without using a ladder. I took off for the Bird Watcher's Digest office, just a few blocks away, and rummaged through the warehouse until I had what seemed like a workable solution. It involved duct tape. You knew it had to. 

                                                       photo by Liam Thompson

    My thinking was that I'd securely tape the nestbox to a sort of extension that I could use to attain more height than I could otherwise. I'd load the nestbox up with clean straw off the bales I'd just bought, insert the three baby starlings, and push it up as high under the awning as I could get it, securing it got it. Duct tape. 

    I brought a small stepstool from the BWD warehouse. The manager didn't like that, and told me not to use it. I told him I was going to anyway, and he could bring me something to sign that released his company from liability if I fell off the stepstool. I think it was clear at that point that I was gonna get those birds up under that awning if I had to grow wings and fly them up there. I climbed on the stepstool and he turned and went back inside. I felt sorry for him. He was doing his job, and he knew crazy bird ladies when he saw them. I'm grateful to him for even allowing us to mess around out there under the awning.

    While constructing the box at BWD, I messaged Cynthia. 

  • Julie Zickefoose I have the nest box made. You need to go get your baby bird and bring some food and water in a dropper to Applebee's.
    Like · Reply · 1 · May 9 at 2:21pm
  • Julie Zickefoose Wait for me I'm just seconds away. I'll tell you the plan and then you need to go get the bird, food and water.
    Like · Reply · 1 · May 9 at 2:22pm
  • Cynthia Starling OK I was thinking that I needed to get him.

She drove home and returned with the starling she'd so tenderly cared for the day and night before. She also brought the nightcrawlers she'd bought, and the all-important water dropper. It was a hot, hot day and we needed to get the birds well-hydrated and fed.

I was going to load those babies up as full as I could with nightcrawlers and water so they'd have fortification for the wait they'd have to endure. Fortunately the babies were With The Program. Being starlings, they were ridiculously easy to feed.  Those giant yellow clown lips are a snap to pry open, and once you get food in there, it goes down fast. 

photo by Liam Thompson

Opening the gape. Having a thumbnail helps. You go in from the side, run your nail along the gape opening, then hold the bill open with thumb and forefinger of  your left hand while you stuff food in with your right. It isn't easy, but you can do it.

The thing most people don't realize about baby birds is that they will refuse food from a person, but it's not because they aren't hungry.  They're hungry all the time. That's a given. The most common thing I get from callers is, "I offered him food but he won't eat." They've usually put a dish of birdseed in front of the baby. Or they've dangled a worm in front of its face. And the baby refuses to take either, because it can't. It doesn't have the neural connections to pick up its own food.

 At this point they've given up and are calling me for help, figuring this thing they're trying to save has a death wish. Well, you don't "offer" food to a frightened, debilitated bird. You pry his bill open and stuff it down him until he gets the idea that you're doing him a favor. Only when that light clicks on in his brain, sometimes a few hours to a day later, and he learns to associate you with food and comfort and good things, will he gape for you. It's got to be the right food, of course. No baby bird can eat birdseed or bread, nor can they pick it up themselves even if they could digest it. Scrambled egg. Soaked kibble. Mealworms, stuffed into its mouth. That kind of thing a baby bird will eat.

photo by Liam Thompson

I had to tear the nightcrawlers into pieces. Cynthia was amazed how much the babies could accept. Hey, they're starlings. A starling is a fat bag of guts and poop propelled by stubby wings.

photo by Liam Thompson

The two newly fallen babies were afraid, but the one she'd cared for overnight knew all about the kindness of people. He gaped until he could swallow no more.

photo by Liam Thompson

When I had them fed and quiet, I made them a nice straw nest and put them in the box. They were so happy to crawl down into their dark nest. It felt like home to them.

I climbed on the stepstool and pushed the box as high up under the awning as I could, directly beneath the starling's original nest, where one baby remained. I taped it as best I could to the metal struts under the awning. It wasn't very high--maybe 10' off the ground. But it was protected from the weather and people, and it was facing the same direction as the original nest opening, and I trusted that once those babies got hungry they'd begin churring in there. The parents, who had, after all, witnessed the entire procedure, would eventually figure out what had happened here, orient to the babies' hunger calls, conquer their fear and enter my makeshift starling nest box. At least that was my hope, informed by knowing a little bit about how birds think.

I got back in my car and watched with binoculars as the parent starlings came, bills laden with food, and looked worriedly down into the shrubs where they'd last seen their three babies. I never saw them orient to the box, but then the foundlings were probably sound asleep in there, resting and digesting. Their babies were gone. It would take awhile before they would find them again. It wasn't going to happen while I was there, and I had to drive Liam to Beverly for his play performance anyway.

Cynthia and I hugged, said our goodbyes and left the area, sure that we'd done the best possible thing short of getting the birds back to their original nest (which clearly wasn't a good option anyway, if three of them had fallen out already).

I went inside and thanked the manager and told him we were all set, that I hadn't fallen off the stepstool and cracked my head open, at least not any farther open than it already was, and that the box would be there for only about ten more days.

The starling parents would have to do the rest.

Next: Why do all this for three starlings? Aren't we supposed to hate starlings?


Oh, tell me there's a part 3! I want to know how this turns out! I swear, I find more drama in the lives of birds than you can ever get on "reality shows"!

This is such a great rescue story!

Wow! Learning lots about starlings! Who knew!?

Ok. I'm one of those starling-haters. I'm "perched" on the proverbial edge of my seat waiting for part 3. Tell me, oh tell me why I shouldn't despise them. :-)

Kindness.....there can never be enough.

Posted by inga schmidt May 28, 2015 at 6:27 PM

So... if Robin Andrea married Cynthia Starling's son or brother, she'd be Robin Starling. Just sayin'. :)

Posted by Gail Spratley May 28, 2015 at 6:59 PM
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